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The Last Dance - a few takeaways


The Last Dance has undoubtedly been one of the best sport-related documentaries released in some time. The detail, insight and screenplay are phenomenal. There are also a heap of great lessons to learn – from both what the Bulls and its players did well, and what they failed to do well. Below are four psychological skills brought to life through examples shown in the Last Dance. Let me know if you agree, disagree or have more to share.

Self-Talk

Self-talk can be defined as words that are expressed either internally or out loud, where the message-sender is also the intended receiver. There are several factors at play, including function (for motivation / focus) and valence (positive / negative talk). The different functions it can have depends on the person, the situation they find themselves in and the intended outcome or goal. As mentioned, it can be for motivation and focus, but it also can be used to enhance confidence, regulate effort, provide thought and emotional control, and help bring about accurate skill execution.

In the Last Dance, there are a number of stories where Jordan would create a scenario in his mind in order to provide the emotional arousal and motivation in order to play at his best (often there would be an admittance later in the press that it was all made-up). Such self-talk was completely independent of an objective reality - he created his own reality through his self-talk. Doing so provided him with a completely fictional situational which brought about his very best performances. These examples show that athletes can play to their best, independent of who the opposition is or the objective ‘importance’ of any game. Jordan knew what he needed to be at his best – a personal vendetta – and took complete responsibility of his own headspace in order to perform; even if it meant creating stories in his own mind! A super example of channelling the Ego.

Reframing

Reframing is something we all do, and we will have certainly done a lot of this during the Lockdown! Technically, there are two types (content and context reframing), but for simplicity, we can just see it as reframing. Essentially, it is a behavioural process where we change our perspective or personal meaning associated to something. It is a hugely powerful skill to develop, as we soon realise that there really isn’t any good or bad necessarily in life. There is only your perception of it. E.g. if we were to perceive something as a failure, that’s the message we deliver to our brain. The brain then, believing it is helping us, produces states that make that a reality. However, if we can develop the skill to change our frame of reference by seeing the same situation from a different point of view, e.g. a growth opportunity, we can change the way both our brains respond and how we respond in our actions. I’m sure you can see how reframing provides us an opportunity to see opportunity, as opposed to threat, and experience more pleasant emotions more often.

Michael Jordan continuously spoke about turning negatives into positives – this was especially true when he tragically lost his father. Reframing doesn’t mean not grieving or not feeling unpleasant emotions when an event happens, but it gives us the fuel to work through situations and come out the other side quicker and with a sense of peace. If you find yourself struggling with a particular situation, try the below process:

Write down:

o What has happened; o How you’ve perceived it;

o What it means to you; o How it makes you feel;


Ask yourself – how can I maybe see this in a way which will benefit me and what can I do? Then write down: o Two different, more positively-sided ways of seeing the situation;

o How it makes you feel; o What you now feel like doing in response to the situation.


To start, it may feel a little ‘forced’ – but that’s only because it is new and going against your normal response. This strategy may be useful for those with kids too!

Preparation

A final takeaway relates to my favourite character / player in the series – Dennis Rodman. Dennis is portrayed as a great player, but also one who enjoys his partying. He is light, dark, good and bad. He is a whole soul – something to be admired even if he isn’t your cup of tea! What stood out for me though was how he would prepare, and how he spoke about his position. The passage is in Episode 3, for about three minutes from 07:30 minutes in. He understood what role suited his attributes best, and went all in at mastering that. I can’t do it justice, so watch it for yourselves, but two skill-learning principles stood out:

  1. Challenge level at training – he always asked other players to provide the challenge, meaning he needed to respond to unknown and varied scenarios. Such practice reflects the unpredictability of game time, and allows him to develop that complete problem-solving skill set.

  2. Specificity – he would learn and understand different players’ angles, trajectories and spin when shooting, so that he could put himself in a position to respond first and most accurately when the rebound would present itself.

  3. Emotion – you can tell, simply from listening to him reflect on how he used to train, the excitement and enjoyment he would have experienced when training. Training that draws out emotions may develop important contextual memory cues that will arise during closely related and emotionally stimulating situations in the real world (i.e. game day). The closer we can get in training to the emotional state experienced on game day, the more primed we may be for accurate skill and tactic execution.


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I am based in South-West London, however work nationwide and I am available over Skype.

Tel: +44 7769 970953

mike@mind-poise.com

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Registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist in training with the British Psychological Society, UK